The extent of the devastation was not known until several days later – reporting on the disaster on 16 April, the Daily Mail’s headline read “Titanic sunk. No lives lost”. The tragedy, says Titanic expert Dr Aidan McMichael, was greeted at first “with shock and disbelief, and then immense sorrow at the scale of the loss of life. How could a ship dubbed unsinkable by the media have met its end so tragically?”
4. The Great Fire of London
September marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, a blaze that destroyed more than 65,000 homes and 13,000 buildings including the Royal Exchange and the original St Paul’s Cathedral. The fire began in the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1666, at the house of Thomas Farynor (aka Farrinor), the king’s baker, in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. Helped by a strong easterly wind coupled with dry and dusty air, the fire raged for three days, by the end of which 100,000 people had been made homeless.
Officially only a handful of people died in the fire but the true toll is likely to have been much higher. This Witness episode brings together the first-hand accounts of diarist Samuel Pepys and schoolboy William Taswell, who watched the fire devastate the city. We also hear from Meriel Jeater, an expert from the Museum of London.
5. The first man in space
On 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into space, making a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft. Dressed in a bright orange spacesuit and a helmet inscribed with ‘CCCP’ painted in red (which marked him as a Soviet citizen so that he would be recognised after parachuting to safety following ejection from the spacecraft), the 27-year-old Gagarin set off with the word “Poyekhali!”.
Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev, who was the Soviet premier at the time of Gagarin’s flight, told BBC News in 2010: “When we look at the response of the Muscovites, where everyone was in the streets, on the roofs of buildings and in the windows, I would compare this celebration with the May 9 victory day (the end of the Second World War for the Soviet Union)”.
In this episode, Witness explores how the young cosmonaut became an instant worldwide celebrity and a poster boy for Soviet technological achievement.